My Family: the Missionaries

My maternal great-grandparents and one of their daughters spent the first half of the 20th century as Presbyterian missionaries in Egypt. Every 7 years they had furlough to visit the US.

When I was a little girl, my great grandparents on my mother’s side were always talked about with awe, because they had been Presbyterian missionaries in Egypt from about 1900 into the 1930’s. My great-grandmother Nancy McClenahan Finney was a formidable woman, a college graduate in the 1890’s, almost six feet tall. My mother remembers her always wearing long black dresses that rustled when she walked.

They were foreigners with right on their side

My great-grandfather Thomas J. Finney, was even more formidable, as tall as his wife was, unsmiling in every photograph. He edited a church newsletter of some kind in Alexandria, in Arabic, which impressed me. Nancy, and then one of her daughters, taught in the mission’s school for girls. I don’t know what their primary message was to the Egyptian girls, but converting from Islam to believe in the Christian God and not be eternally damned was no doubt at the top of the list. I’ve seen lots of black and white photographs of Nancy seated in rooms with tall ceilings, huge windows and drapes, being waited on by at least one Egyptian servant, who sometimes held a fan on a large pole. Like a scene in a movie.

Even more incredibly, I eventually learned, my great-grandparents were preparing to leave for Egypt in 1898 but had to stop because of a strong anti-missionary uprising in Egypt. My great-grandparents apparently were not deterred, though. They just waited a year or two until things calmed down, then they went where they were not wanted. That seems a particularly abysmal demonstration of racial and cultural disrespect.

The illusions deepened

The more questions I asked about their lives, the more it seemed they weren’t a very happy family. My great-grandparents seemed to have given most of their attention and love to the Presbyterian church’s mission, not to their own children. One child died as an infant because his Egyptian nurse fed him cucumbers, they said. Thomas had what they called a “nervous breakdown” afterward, but nobody could tell me what that meant, exactly. He died at a fairly young age in 1915, leaving all the women to cope on their own.

One of the missionaries’ daughters married the wrong man

My grandmother Ethel Finney Lybarger had a fine finishing school education in Switzerland, returned to the US, and married. I have a 1913 photograph of her looking the happiest I ever saw her, in an exquisite large-brimmed hat with lace and flowers, wearing a flowing white silk dress–on the eve of her wedding. But the man she was so eager to marry didn’t prove up on the ambitious lawyer/politician he was supposed to be, chose instead to teach high school history so he could do all the talking, and left her to give piano lessons in the parlor, forget about her concert skills. She spent her life juggling too little money for too large a family, having to cut and paste and pretend everything was finer than it was. The family jewelry I was eventually bequeathed was literally all paste, cut red glass in place of rubies. And what all my grandmother’s sacrifices seemed to amount to was three ungrateful daughters, each disappointed in her for their own reasons.

The missionaries’ other daughter wasn’t allowed to marry her Egyptian love.

Ethel’s younger sister, my great-aunt Davida, fell in love with an Egyptian man, I think, but was refused permission to marry him; she continued working with the Egyptian mission, but remained single. She was a founder of The Village Project, they called it, teaching reading in villages along the Nile if they settled their feuds. She helped publish the first cookbook in the region, they said, because the village women hadn’t been able to read before; I never found a copy. She wrote a book in the 1930’s titled EGYPT’S TOMORROW that I did have a copy of, but found it dense and difficult reading and I have no idea where it is now. Aunt Nancy told me that my great aunt said she thought the book was “No good,” and she was sorry she ever wrote it. I found a copy online that costs $46, but I’m afraid to buy it now and discover what she thought then about dark-skinned, Islamic people.

A legacy of never quite enough love to go around

This fraught emotional legacy trickled down to my mother, who was convinced her mother (the piano teacher) never loved her. This false charge made me defend my gentle grandmother who was always kind to me (the only grandchild). My mother’s younger sister had a rough emotional life too, and moved half-way around the world (to Edinburgh, Scotland) to get away from everybody in the family, even me. My mother’s oldest sister stayed in Ohio, married but had no children, and kept all the family antiques and papers; I made great effort to bond with her about family history and all her stories, but even so she kept me at arm’s length. By the end of her life, she worried that the country was being overtaken by people who weren’t white or Republican or very nice.

What is my family legacy, then?

Did my missionary great-grandparents conversion of any Egyptians estrange them from their Islamic families, have unfortunate repercussions in their lives? Did the literacy and education they provided serve their students well in life, their children, their children’s children?

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